Posts Tagged ‘running’

I’m one who favours defending square and with coordination being more important than quickness. This ensures integrity of the line, without anyone rushing ahead of another or having to rely too heavily on a team mate. Staying square means you can defend off either shoulder and make easy adjustments as attacking players do.

Most, if not all, of the attack solutions found in the Drift and Blitz defence posts can be used against flat, man-on-man defences. In some of the video examples, you can see how teams started square, but then had to resort to a drift, otherwise turned their bodies to chase an attacker, or one player shot up ahead of his / lagged behind team mates. With coordination and trust being vital to effective defence, attackers should consider ways to break this and find opportunities for themselves or their support runners. This doesn’t require fancy, multi-faceted moves with decoy runners. It can be done with a simple dummy pass and/or sudden change of direction. I don’t know if there’s a ‘non-negotiable’ rule for any of these, but players should be trying these things out in training in natural 4v4 games in realistic conditions so they can work out what works for them. Some key reminders should be to keep the ball in two hands to always remain a threat, to keep changes of direction sudden and sharp, to aim for shoulders to draw attention.

Supporting players have to be especially proactive a they’re the ones who have a wider view of how defenders in line react to what the ball carrier’s doing. Too often, I see ball carriers – to their credit – trying to make things happen, but see their supporting players hanging back expecting to be given a golden pass. I think, more often, they have to go looking for space that’s created, defenders whose attention is drawn away from them, or to make an early call to the ball carrier regarding better options. A short while ago I read a great interview with World Cup-winning legend Jonny Wilkinson who said:

I remember coming off the pitch at Twickenham and doing TV interviews with the media being very flattering and I was feeling like a fraud, thinking: ‘Are you kidding me? I’m not a genius — I just heard someone say give him the ball, so I gave him the ball!’ My best-looking games were when someone was in my ear for 80 minutes telling me what to do.”

I figure if one of the greatest fly halves of all time can say that, then certainly decision makers at every level should be demanding more from their support. The decision-maker’s arguably more different task given that he won’t have a Will Greenwood outside him/her is to know what angles, dummy passes, decoy runners, etc. do to defences, quickly consider the advice, and pick the best option for what he/she sees in front. It’s another reason I think we need to play more realistic games at training, because this is rugby. Training against passive defenders – or no defenders at all! – will not allow players to develop these skills. And I challenge all my players, from props to full backs, to be able to step into that position and make a good decision based on what they see and hear.

So, after that long-winded introduction, how can we disrupt or manipulate well-organised defences? Let’s look at some examples:

Each of these two-man moves can be done anywhere on the pitch – in wide open spaces, or close to ruck. While more support might be needed to score, the aim here is to breach the defensive line. (I’ll cover support options and lines of pursuit in a later post, though I think the lines people take are often fairly easy to spot at ground level – Go for the space and move away from the threat!)

2 v 2 Options

The first is an example of a classic Unders Line, where it’s important that the ball carrier stays straight, to fix the defender, and that the supporting runner’s directional change is sudden and sharp. If the defender covering the ball carrier is properly fixed, the strike runner can aim for the space behind his shoulder, ensuring that he gets away from the man covering him. The Overs Line is pretty much the opposite, with the strike runner flaring outward instead of inward, aiming for the space behind the third defender or off the shoulder of his if he’s turned inward. Of course, the pass is different for each – soft and flat for an Unders, and hard and wide (maybe slightly deep, but definitely in front of the runner’s hands).

The second example is often called a Y-Line these days, with the ball carrier making the sudden move. He aims for the space behind the defender beside the defender covering him. This sudden and sharp angle either allows him to slip behind that defender or draw his attention. It should be a win-win scenario if done properly. If the defender stays on his man, he can exploit the space and get behind the defence. If the defender bites, he can pass to a supporting runner who picks a tight line behind the back of the turned defender. This is usually seen going out, but can also be done on the inside if there’s enough width.

The third features a classic loop. Some people think the receiver should pop back to the passer on the inside – before she goes around – while others have the receiver pop when she’s gone around and is straightening up into the gap. I don’t mind either way, but think that each depends on how soon the receiver got the ball, how much space is in front, and what the passer intends to do when she gets the ball back. Some teams use the looping player as a decoy / distributor to pull even more defenders out of line. Other scenarios would have the looping player strike into an open gap between the second and third defenders. Ideally, the looping player would keep both options open!

I might go into them in greater detail later, but you can combine both Unders and Overs lines together in what are called Blocker and Slider moves to really open well-disciplined defences, but I think at amateur levels, the above are usually quite effective.  That said, the essential element of a complicated move is usually just one move – in a Slider, for example, the second attacker suddenly flares outward toward the third defender. If teams are truly ‘playing rugby’, they’ll assess what that does and simply pick the best way to attack the way the defence reacted to that move.

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In this second post focusing on simple ways to beat typical defensive styles, I’ll focus on the blitz defence. It’s also referred to as a ‘rush’ or an ‘umbrella’ but for the sake of simplicity I’m going to stick with ‘blitz’. This tactic is more recent in rugby’s history, and I’m led to believe it comes from rugby league. London Wasps used to be renowned for it when league legend Shaun Edwards was coach there. In this link from BT Sport’s Rugby Tonight, you can hear Edwards talk about it: [click here]. It does have quite a few limitations and it’s often referred to as a high-risk/high-reward tactic because it can stop teams deep behind the gain line or give them a huge opportunity to break out if not done properly.

Blitz Defence Characteristics:

  • Defenders typically align on the outside shoulder of the attacking player, with the intent on keeping the play contained close to the origin of the play
  • They push up fast looking to make a tackle deep behind the gain line (or go for an intercept), making them vulnerable to side steps
  • Often the outer defender comes forward more than the interior group of three or four, which looks like a gate swinging shut (whereas one could say a drift defence looks like an open gate)
  • In other systems, a central defender shoots up ahead of the rest looking or the big tackle or intercept
  • In both cases at least one defender comes further forward than the rest, leaving space behind that can be exploited by the ball carrier or a strike runner
  • They also tend to leave a lot of space between the rushing group and the full back

Exposing a Blitz Defence:

Exploit the Space Behind

If outer defenders run too far forward, they give a great exit opportunity for the ball carrier. In the diagram, the passer dummies a pass hoping the outside defender sprints up to put a big hit on the receiver, but then slips behind with a sharp angle and a burst of speed. It’s key that the ball carrier run away from his/her defender and and behind the inside shoulder of the next defender. In some cases, that defender recognises this and is able to adjust. This defender is now out of the play allowing the player he was covering to sprint forward and go looking for an offload from the ball carrier.

BLITZ - Dummy and Go

Exploit the “Shooter”

If the pass is made early and a defender “shoots up” ahead of the rest, there’s an opportunity to send someone else from either side in behind. In this situation, the support runner has to run a sharp line aiming for the space behind the defender and make a timely call for a sympathetic short pass.

BLITZ - Shooter

Similarly, when one “shooter” comes forward to cut off a pass or in an overzealous attempt to intercept, a patient passer can hold and pass behind the shooter to a strike runner coming up flat.

BLITZ - Shooter 2

Pass Deep to Get Around the Blitz

As a blitz defence usually only involves a small section of defenders coming forward, there is an opportunity to go around the closing ‘gate’. The team using this option requires patience, quality execution and belief that they can play from deep (a tackle here can mean a costly turnover!). They have to hold their depth and make early and accurate passes with little forward running so they have time to get to the outside. It can be a less-risky option to take, however, if the players leading the blitz aren’t the most agile and if support is present to run into the holes created.

BLITZ - Deep and Around

Pass Over the Blitz

If the defending line is up fast and tight, there is still an option to pass (remember: the aim of a blitz is to contain the ball on the inside and contest from a powerful, go-forward position of strength behind the gain line). In many blitz defences, the wing holds back to cover a kick. If the passer has a good long pass, he/she can try lobbing a quick one to the winger coming up flat over-top the blitzing group. For reference, Quade Cooper often does this, but he has also thrown intercepts or set up the receiver for a big hit when the pass was floated too high, allowing time for a defender to get under.

BLITZ - Over the Top

Kicking Behind the Blitz

The group rushing forward often leaves a big gap between them and the full back, inviting a short kick behind for someone to re-gather. Although a lot of people hesitate to kick as one can be giving possession away, this tactic used more than once early in the game can also cause a blitzing team to ease off, not wanting to give away too much space behind. This is one of the reasons that teams use blitzes more as an occasional / situational tactic rather than a continuous style of defence.

BLITZ - Kick Behind

Finally, there are two more great examples here outlined by Scott Allen from The Roar:


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In recent years, I’ve been avoiding the use of set plays as I’ve too often found that players rely on them too much and end up missing easier opportunities. They also require a lot of rehearsal, which can be a huge waste of time given how infrequently they’re used or when you opt not to use them because the opposition has figured them out. So I’d been putting players in situations and games that forced them to be creative and to consider how best to support the ball carrier/passer. This has been quite successful with teens as most I’ve worked with have a creative spark – and what teen doesn’t like to show off, really? The past two years, however, I’ve been working with men’s sides and have found this more difficult as many are set in their traditional ways. So I’ve been working with them on what I call their personal and team “tool box” – skills and tactics they can use for given situations, the same way a builder picks a certain tool for a specific (or general) job.  [Surely we’ve all used a flat screw driver to open a paint can!]

Another big part of developing analytical and clever decision makers is to put them in typical game-like scenarios and have them assess the visual cues that often appear. This means doing more than 2v1s because, while it’s essentially what breaking down defences comes to, there are so many variables in a line of defenders, that players have to consider a fuller range of options and possibilities.

We always try and attack the ‘easy opportunity’ – things like mismatches in size, speed, or ability, poor alignment, obvious gaps, etc.  Again, for teens this is often simple enough, because in our league there are always ‘exploitable opportunities’ like this. The men, however, are generally more organised, especially as defence is such a major (and easy) focus these days.  So our scenarios therefore have focused on defensive styles and how to beat them based on the inherent limitations or opportunities in their structure (see below). In order to speed up the process of picking the right tool for the task at hand, we brainstormed ideas on how to beat each style and focused on just a few that fell within the team’s knowledge and abilities and which matched our preferred style of play.

Below, and in subsequent posts, I’ll outline some of the ‘tools’ we use for different styles of defence, starting with the classic drift defence.

Drift Defence Characteristics:

  • Defenders align on the inside shoulder and push out
  • Usually space in front on the outside – a tactic used when defending teams out-numbered – with last man hanging back to invite the ball to go wide so they can reduce width and push toward the sideline
  • Susceptible to cut backs on the ‘soft shoulder’ (i.e. inside shoulder, especially if the push becomes lateral)
  • Help from the inside defender is vital to cover the ‘soft shoulder’

Exposing a Drift Defence:

Attacking the Soft Shoulder

As defenders push out, it’s difficult to adjust to someone changing directions against the flow of the push. This is a classic ‘attacking the branches of the tree, rather than the trunk’ moment. A tight line on the inside shoulder might just catch an arm. Too close to the inside defender, and the ball carrier might be caught. If the inside defender is a bit lazy, then there’s a huge opportunity.

DRIFT - Cut Back

Inside Ball to Support Runner

The trick here is that there has to be a reasonable gap between defenders. Again, aided by a lazy inside defender, but not impossible if the timing of the support run and pass is good. The support runner might also expose a different gap than noted below if the inside defender pushes too early onto the receiver, leaving an even bigger gap. If the defenders are disciplined, though, it’s really the space behind the ball carrier’s defender that needs to be attacked.

DRIFT - Inside Ball

Pass Wide and Flat

As noted, drift defences tend to hang back on the outside hoping to force the attacking team toward or even into touch, often accommodating for a lack of numbers out wide. So a simple solution is to get the ball there as quickly as possible. The key element is to get the ball there quickly and relatively flat. If the pass is loopy and deep, the drift pushes out and comes up. Where it’s quick hands or a long and flat miss pass, the flatness of the strike runner will expose the space before the defenders have time to cover it. Drift defences are trying to buy time, so take it away. On the flip side, if the pass is a early, the attackers can preserve width the defenders are trying to close down by straightening up.

DRIFT - Wide

Looping Run

The looping run can be effective if the player looping around is actually quick and if the passer picks a line that effectively blocks the drifting defender. Timing is key here, as if the passer pops to the looping player too soon, s/he’ll likely get tackled from the side by the drifting defender. That said, if the passer recognises this happening, the passer can dummy, hold and go using the looper as a decoy. This situation is made easier for the looping runner if the third attacker moves wide, drawing the third defender. This would present one of those either/or situations that should be win-win … third defender stays on third attacker, and looper has a gap; third defender steps in on looper and s/he passes to the third attacker who should have a massive gap.

DRIFT - Loop

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Here’s a game I created that’s become popular with all three teams I’ve coached since I came up with it last year. Rapid Fire Touch is 4-handed – i.e. two different people to stop a ball carrier, after the first two-handed, the ball carrier can still run but can’t score.

  • When scored upon, the defending team leaves the field of play immediately and the attacking team can attack the opposite goal line. All players from that team must cross the goal line before joining their team mates.
  • When touched by two different players, the team in possession leaves the field of play immediately and the defending team all must cross the nearest goal line before attacking in the opposite direction.

  • In both cases, the new team enters the field of play at midfield immediately, matching up and communicating their responsibilities.

This game can be played with 3, 4, or 5 (find this to be the maximum to ensure everyone’s involved) per team. Four-handed touch encourages ball carriers to attack space and create full line-break or half-break scenarios.  It’s main focus is evasive footwork, ball movement and support lines, not to mention communication in both attack and defence. The width of the playing area can vary. Wide encourages support lines and communication as ball carriers are more likely to make breaks or pull defenders well out of position (remembering that two defenders are needed to stop one from scoring). Narrower might be better for advanced players to work on timing of the pass and run and more challenging creation of space / opportunities.  This works really well in a gym for winter training.

Encourage to communicate early, pass to space, take on defenders with evasive footwork and supporting runners to be loud and pick clever pursuit lines. Faster the better as taking away space gives the opposition less time to adjust! Great for developing a fast, open style of play training communication, seeing and taking space, support and fitness as well.


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As a visual learner, I’ve always been interested in watching sport and trying new things (as a player) and adding to my knowledge (as a coach) from what I saw on the telly in addition to enjoying the spectacle.  The wonders of the Inter Web have allowed me to expand upon this as I can watch way more sport than I can with even the best cable packages.  Video clips on YouTube are an important learning tool for me as rugby’s a sport that does continue to evolve, both in the way athletes play the game and how coaches direct it.  There isn’t a lot of great coaching material that gets published – compared to my first sports, American football and basketball anyway – and even tv analysis leaves me scratching my head at times as presenters can be full of hot air.  So analysing video myself, looking at cause and effect over and over via the slide bar and watch again button, allow me to pick apart the action myself.

I don’t think it’s a difficult skill to acquire and I’ve proved this by running a classroom session with a high school girls’ team.  I asked them to get into groups based upon unit (front row, second row, back row, half backs, centres, back three) and find a try they liked.  I then asked them to show it to the whole team via the big screen in our computer lab and explain what elements led to the try being scored.  This was the first time I did something like this, previously walking through video clips by myself, and was fully prepared for it to fail.  I tried to boost confidence, esp. with the front rowers who said they just make tackles and ruck and have no idea how tries are created, with a little ‘coaching’.  I said to them that every action on the field should have a reaction from the defence.  If the defence reacts well, then the attack is probably going to be shut down.  If not, the attackers should get through – unless the attackers themselves have botched it somehow.  Little technical and tactical things that we can see – like not being aligned properly, looking up before securing the ball, poor communication leading to two players going after the same ball carrier leaving an attacker free, etc. – are really how tries are scored or not.  These subtleties might not be so obvious when watching a game on tv (not to mention live!) as the action is so quick, angles not ideal, and because there are so many players on the field.  (One reason I’m not such a fan of sevens is that mistakes are more likely and obvious given the extra space, whereas in fifteens attack and defence is more nuanced.)

There are plenty of great accounts on YouTube – with legal uploads too! – that you can observe and analyse to develop your knowledge of the game and to give you an idea of what to work on at practice.  Kids love this stuff as well, and especially for those of us in countries where televised rugby is hard to watch, sending them here is not only a way of getting them more excited about the game, but also to learn what Clive Woodward called the ‘critical non-essentials’ of the game that are hard to train for – like quick lineouts, dummy passes, quick tap penalties, etc.

Let’s look at the Aviva Premiership’s Try of the Week for round one of the new season.

The try scored by Christian Wade is so much more than just his amazing step and speed.

LESSON 1 – Attacking with purpose:  As the announcer says, Quins were probing in attack but Wasps’ aggressive defence stopped them.  Fly half Nick Evans runs sideways allowing centre Eliot Daly to take him down quickly in the tackle.  Running sideways isn’t a complete sin in my book, but you’d better have an exit strategy because tackling someone from the side is much easier than from the front, and Daly dominates the tackle.  One of the Quins backs needed to call for the ball, either wide, or on a switch to straighten up their attack.

LESSON 2 – Dominant tackles and tackle contest:  Poor body positioning from Evans aside, this could have just been a simple tackle that resulted in a ruck.  But Daly tackles him quickly and immediately gets back on his feet to challenge for the ball – nice and legal.  This is not possible with high / slow tackles, as support will be there to secure attacking ball.  In addition to Daly’s dominance and aggression in the tackle contest, he has immediate support from flanker Jonathan Poff.  Note how close together they are, making them stronger in the fight for the ball / counter ruck.  (It does become a bit messy … but the dominance aspect is something refs have to consider these days.  Players go off their feet most times, but the two Wasps players were in dominant positions and the ball was made available so quickly that, like the other few dozen times this happens in a game that doesn’t prevent a fair and reasonable contest, play continues.)

LESSON 3- Quick ball:  It could have ended with a ruck and the scrum half moving to play the ball or a forward to pick and drive around the fringe of that ruck – as I see most teams do.  The next key element before we see Wade’s brilliant feet in action is the lock not opting for the selfish / unthoughtful pick and drive, but the quickest of passes out to the players who had both space and a numbers advantage.  At 0:08, we see #5 Marco Wentzel play the ball in a diving pass to what ends up being four backs against one.

LESSON 4 – Defensive recognition and communication:  Not only was winger George Lowe caught outnumbered, you can see that at 0:07 and 0:08 he’s not even taking notice that there are that many players outside him.  Same goes for scrum half Danny Care, who should know better as an England player, that the tackle was lost and he should be directing traffic to shore up their defence.  Lowe, as the last man in defence on the wing should have let that ruck go and positioned himself to not just cover Wade, but also call for help on the blind side.  Instead he runs in, then has to run back out to cover Wade.  Wentzel’s quick thinking pass sets the Wasps backs off, but better defence might have prevented them from such an easy run.

LESSON 5 – Who takes who?:  Lowe was one of last season’s great young discoveries and is no slouch of a player, but he needed to do two things (or at least have help) and he might have stopped the try.  Firstly, he retreats a bit to ‘jockey’ the two attackers in front of him – a tactic that’s meant to buy time and cause indecision in the ball carrier.  Giving space away is not ideal, but in this case he’s already in trouble so it’s not a bad option to allow coverage to come across.  If communication was better from the cover, he might have been able to step into the initial ball carrier or been able to stay on the outside man and trust that cover would take the ball carrier.  In this situation, I’d coach the second option, as it’d be more difficult for the cross cover to get to the outside and cover the speedy Wade should Lowe take the Wasps player who first gets the ball.  (That’s debatable, though.)

LESSON 6 – Timing:  The initial receiver is Wasps inside centre Andrea Masi.  First off, he does a great job to get back on side into a position of depth that gives him space to not only run when he gets the ball but also time to think about what his options are.  It’s not clear as to whether Wade calls for the pass or Masi sets him up, but either way the timing of it all was excellent.  Masi takes it forward in two hands, which is key because it means Lowe can’t be sure as to whether he’ll crash it up – as inside centres are oft to do – or pass.  If Masi had tucked it away, it’d have been easier for Lowe to commit to him as the pass wouldn’t be as likely.  His forward run also serves to commit Lowe to a certain degree.  If he’d passed immediately, Lowe could have slid off and immediately picked up Wade.

LESSON 7 – Easy space:  I tell me players to seek out ‘easy space’ as much as possible – clear room into which they can run.  Space between defenders is obvious ‘easy space’.  But important ‘easy space’ – especially when facing well organised defenders who aren’t allowing attackers to get into gaps – is also in between ball carrier and defender, i.e. the space in front.  This importantly gives the ball carrier time to create or preserve space for someone else.  And this is what Masi does so well.  Masi, now without the ‘easy space’ in front, having drawn Lowe somewhat, gives a well placed pass to Wade and puts him into ‘easy space’ out wide.  If Masi had selfishly cut into the ‘easy space’ out wide, Lowe would have drifted with him … possibly allowing Wade a switch back, but which would also make it easier for cross cover to take him out.  Instead, he fixes Lowe in his channel, preserves the width for Wade and gives him the opportunity to use it with a well timed pass.

LESSON 8 – Footwork:  Christian Wade is fast, easily one of the fastest in the Premier League.  But it’s not his straight line speed that gets him the try.  George Lowe is also fast and Wade isn’t the largest or most powerful of players so a well timed pursuit might stop him.  Wade brilliantly makes a subtle change of direction to run at Lowe, and then quickly swerves away and beats him to the outside.  Lowe’s reaction shows fear that Wade will beat him on his inside – though I’d say his positioning to stop that was pretty good – and as such he hesitates and nearly stands up.  Wade effectively ‘freezes’ or ‘fixes’ him in place and makes his real move.  If Lowe had backed himself, and committed to the pursuit and tackle, I think he might have at least got a hand to him.  Instead, by being hesitant and falling for the feint side step, he lost his momentum and his ability to close down the space and make a tackle on Wade.
There is is.  A one minute clip that can be broken down into many teachable elements.  Watching game tape can be tedious and boring for the players, esp. at school level where most are out for fun.  The aforementioned high school team interestingly enough all chose to talk about tries that matched how they liked to play on the field.  We never watched our own games, but I’d look for trends in the few that were filmed and by consulting my own notes and we’d work on those elements at practice – both ones that needed reinforcement and those that needed correction.  We did analyse our own game tape when I coached at a university, but there we only addressed major trends.  So I’d pick out two or three things we did well and two or three major things that needed work and we’d break those down as above as a highlight / reminder and make those elements the focus for training the following week.  I think involving the players in the discussion by asking questions rather than giving answers, making the whole process a constructive rather than instructive one, is most important.  The university women demonstrated this in their desire to discuss those few clips and act upon the lessons, commenting that they felt these sessions much more productive than the ones their friends on the football team had to endure where they’d watch the entire game and break down every little element – if they managed to stay awake!

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I may have made reference before to a high school girls’ team I once coached to a city championship title.  I’m indebted to them not just for memorable season, but also for having the will to try some unorthodox strategies I had that I was sure would work for novice players.  I’ll talk more about our attack strategy soon as I finalise a clear way of describing and visualising it.  It all came about when someone asked what plays I wanted them to run.  As someone quickly suggested what they’d run last year I interrupted her because one of the first was the classic fly half / centre switch.  I was maybe a bit blunt in saying so, but on the spot I declared that we wouldn’t have any “plays” this year.  Needless to say, the girls were speechless.  I am thankful, though, that there weren’t immediate protests and not even sideways glances (that I noticed, anyway) to suggest ‘this guy is crazy’.  I quickly explained myself, though, saying that we can waste a lot of training time working on set moves that we might use once, maybe two or three times a game … or over use them to the point that teams have us figured out.  I also stressed that the rigid “plays” teams run – especially at such a novice level – often cause players to miss the obvious opportunities given to them by defenders who aren’t absolutely perfect at defending in line and with quality.

To give you a sneak peak of the larger strategy-focused article to follow, our simple game plan was to get the ball away from the mass of defenders, take it into space with determination and support the ball carrier.  I might not even need the article, because that’s as simple as it needs to be.  (I will, however, discuss how we conceptualised it and how we trained for it!)

But let’s turn to the suggestion that prompted my almost-brusque outburst.  The word ‘switch’ made me cringe as I disagree with the way it is used in seemingly nine times out of ten.  With that team, I talked about the simple two or three-player moves that should not be called as “plays” but should happen on the fly to create space.  A switch is one of those.  To be used not as a set play, but as a move to be used on the fly to create space or expose poor defenders.

The point of the switch should be to draw the defender marking the ball carrier with a sharp outward cut, allowing a strike runner to a cut back into the space created.  Where space isn’t that obvious, players should look to expose what some coaches (citation pending when I remember where I read /heard that phrase!) refer to as the ‘soft shoulder’.  The player switching back shouldn’t be running straight into a drifting defender, but off that player’s inside shoulder.  With their hips turned in pursuit of the ball carrier who initiated the switch, it’s very hard, if not impossible for that player to make a tackle on his or her inside, or soft shoulder.


Nine times out of ten, however, I see the switch being used on first phase, close to the mass of defenders around the ruck where it’s nearly impossible for the ball carrier to avoid running into someone.  Some coaches would probably argue that their purpose is to set up a ruck and draw defenders inward for the next phase.  I think this is negative rugby, contrary to the principles of going forward and maintaining continuity.  I’d also counter argue by asking, first, did you not have the ability to attack with more ambition on the first phase?  Lastly, I’d point out that regardless of the ability of your players, there are more clever ways of actually making and breaking the gain line than by running back into the mass of defenders.

Some also use the dummy switch, whereby the ball carrier holds and goes himself or passes to a player outside, hoping to draw defenders in on the decoy runner.  This was quite effective for great ball carriers like Stephen Larkham and Matt Giteau when they played for the Brumbies and Wallabies.  The difference between the way they executed it and how most others use the dummy switch is simply down to the angle.  Most dummy switches I see have the ball carrier running nearly sideways across the field in order to ‘sell’ the dummy by pretending to do the motion of the pass.  First off, the angle all but eliminates the ball carrier as a true attacking threat as they’re not really going forward looking for space – most dummy switches are seemingly meant to fake inside and pass outside to, say, the outside centre or full back.  Most teams choose one of the best attacking players as their fly half, so why take him/her out of the equation by making them run across the field?  Secondly, the act of faking the pass – pulling the ball to the other side of the body and twisting the shoulders around – not only wastes time, in my opinion, but makes it hard to make a proper pass outward if that’s the intent of the move.

A player cutting on a good 45 degree angle to his right will have his hands positioned to make a left handed pass.  The act of faking the switch pass brings the ball to his right side.  In order to allow the body to provide power and accuracy, the left handed pass is still the ideal, so the ball has to be brought all the way back to the left side and then passed.  This wastes precious time.  Very often, I see players – who are now under a lot of pressure – using the hand of the side to which the dummy was made (the right hand in our example).  Even if that happens to be the player’s strongest hand, it’s an odd angle to make a pass and sometimes has the tendency to drift forward.  At the very least, it again means that the ball carrier is no longer a threat as he’s nearly turned his back to the defence.  If a dummy switch is going to be executed well, the ball carrier must take a sharp angle, aiming for the inside shoulder of the next defender outside him (generally speaking).  It’s up to the decoy runner, therefore, to be loud and look as though he’s actually getting a pass.  I feel there’s no need for the fake pass if the decoy is the one doing the ‘selling’.

With that all said, I’m not totally against switches, because defences will drift at some point.  Not only are they susceptible to cut-backs against the soft shoulder, but there are also times at which the next defender inside them haven’t pushed across as quickly, and have left a massive hole between them.  (This seems to happen most when a back pushes too quickly and a forward can’t keep up – and why backs should always look at tight five forwards in the back line as a potential player to pick on!).  I find switches especially useful in two scenarios where the one or both attacking players can take advantage of space and defenders’ body positioning.  They are:

  1.  When a ball carrier, with a team mate outside her, has tried to make an outside break and is getting close to the touchline.  The player outside her switches back in to keep the ball in-field, looking to get on the inside of a defender who’s pushing across too hard.  This is highly likely if the ball has moved wide quickly as defenders tend to over-pursue those attacks by running sideways across the field.  The receiving player might now find herself in daylight.  Defenders will still be pushing across, however, and so I’d like to see support players get on either side of her as options for another pass.
  2. In broken play, after:  1. Several phases, 2. With quickly recycled ball, and 3. Away from the last tackle contest and the mass of defenders.  Not much different than the scenario above, but where that can happen when the ball is moved wide quickly from a scrum or lineout, this one doesn’t necessarily need as much room to work.  The three conditions provide the attacking team with that ideal opportunity when the defenders are jumbled (esp. when slower forwards get mixed in with backs), when they are disorganised, and where there is space to attack.  Space can often be limited, so the focus isn’t so much about beating the soft shoulder as it is catching a defender off-guard who’s either pushed across too hard or who hasn’t pushed across enough.


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This week we will be looking at simple ways we can create space where it doesn’t exist and to preserve space for team mates when making such moves.  This will mostly involve the classic loop, switch, and miss pass (back inside / loop) moves, which I feel are under used or too often planned too far ahead of time, resulting in something that’s predictable or that misses the true opportunity.  We’ll build upon last week’s angle running session by reminding the group that communication – and timely communication at that! – is vital.  We’ll start with closed technique development to ensure players have their angles and timing right, but then give them the freedom to practice the variety of skills developed in a more dynamic environment.  Ideally, we’d finish with a game, but given the numbers we had last week, and the restriction of a basketball court, I hope this skill scenario – with a feedback structure – will suffice.

Sunday Session #2

Space – Running Lines (re-v), Two-(Wo)Man Moves

 0-10 Mins     Partner / Tri / Square Passing

  • Grip
  • ‘Snap’ out
  • Follow through to target
  • ‘Spiderman’ or ‘Turn the knob’

10 push, 10 spin (perfect)


10-15 mins Passing in Lines

  • Quality!
  • Transfer in one step
  • Targets up, Follow through to target
Passing in Lines … 3s or 4s

  • Start from the ground, SH follows

Dynamic Recovery (half and jog back)

  • Straight Leg Walk (on toes opp.)
  • High Knee Pull (on toes opp.)
  • Fence Climbers
  • Lunge Walk w. twist
  • Pick Grass
  • Inch Worm


  Quick Introduction…Session Objectives


Creation and Preservation of Space…Angles Revisited

Two-Man Moves

Supporting Moves

(excuse self to get water)


15-25 mins Angles RevisitedUnders and Overs

  • Fix defenders
  • Sudden, angular movement into space
  • Communicate intent: “Unders / overs – NOW!”
  • Unders = late run, flat short pass; wider space between passer and strike runner
  • Overs = early run, slightly deeper, leading wide pass; wider channel between receiver and 2nd receiver
Three Stations (5 mins each) 
25-30 mins  Fitness Blast 1(45 sec, 30 sec) Station 1: Fast FeetStation 2: Butt Kicks

Station 3: Knee Thrust Skips
Station 4: Backwards Running / Backpedal


30-50 mins  2-(Wo)Man Moves

  • To create space or create opportunities
  • Sudden and deliberate, communicated intent
  • Straighten and keep move alive (two hands on ball)
  • Quality of pass and timing of both pass and run!!!

  • Tight and Straighten
  • Early / delayed


  • Occupy other lane
  • Pop pass behind back


  • Middle hangs back or loops


50-55 mins Fitness Blast 2(30 sec, 30 sec) Station 1: Tuck JumpsStation 2: Mountain Climbers

Station 3: Burpees

Station 4: Body Squats


65-70 mins Break and De-Brief  
60-80 mins Dynamic Attack

  • Depth at which run is started and pass is made (TIMING!)
  • Width in which to strike
  • Calls: Hands, Hold and Go, Unders, Overs, Decoy, Loop, Miss, Switch


3 v 2 (w. bags) 
80-90 mins  X-FACTOR 
  • You and your unit of 5 get two chances to break through a three-man defensive wall
  • Defenders may be programmed to ensure players are scanning and acting on the fly, not pre-planning
  • A panel will analyse and provide feedback to each unit

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I’ve started indoor sessions with a local club and will be posting the details of those sessions so the players present (or not) can make greater sense of what we did.  As much as possible, I will try to add some supportive video content and will reflect upon where I’d tweak the session if I ran it again.

Main Outcomes
  • Develop fast-feet, evasive / reactive footwork
  • Understand purpose and key elements of unders / overs running lines (referred to as ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ cuts)
  • Practice timing, angles of runs, accuracy of passing in a dynamic environment
0-10 Mins Quick Introduction…Session Objectives

  • Perfect personal skills to make attack more efficient
    • Basic Pass
    • In front
    • Shoulder height
    • No arc / fast
    • Target up / follow through to target
  • Agility to Beat a Defender / Create Space
  • Basic Running Lines (and communication)
    • Unders
    • Overs
    • (Combos?)
Partner / Tri / Square Passing

  • Grip
  • ‘Snap’ out
  • Follow through to target
  • ‘Spiderman’ or ‘Turn the knob’

10 push, 10 spin (perfect)

(*if time, deck and pass from ground)

10-15 mins Passing in Lines

  • Quality!
  • Transfer in one step
  • Targets up, Follow through to target
Passing in Lines … 3s or 4s

  • Start from the ground, SH follows

Dynamic Recovery (half and jog back)

  • Straight Leg Walk (on toes opp.)
  • High Knee Pull (on toes opp.)
  • Fence Climbers
  • Lunge Walk w. twist
  • Pick Grass
  • Inch Worm
15-30 mins Agility

  • ‘Dynamic’ body position
  • On toes
  • Sudden movements

1. Up and Backpedal, 2. Side stepping, 3. Swerves

30-45 mins Unders and Overs

  • Fix defenders
  • Sudden, angular movement into space
  • Communicate intent: “Unders / overs – NOW!”
  • Unders = late run, flat short pass; wider space between passer and strike runner
  • Overs = early run, slightly deeper, leading wide pass; wider channel between receiver and 2nd receiver
Unders and Overs Stations 

2 v 2 (dummy defenders), started with a SH pass

Advanced:  working on S-lines

45-50 mins Fitness Blast Station 1: Tuck JumpsStation 2: Mountain ClimbersStation 3: BurpeesStation 4: Body Squats
50-65 mins Dynamic Running Lines

  • Depth at which run is started and pass is made (TIMING!)
  • Width in which to strike
  • Calls: Hands, Hold and Go, Unders, Overs, Decoy
3 v 2 (w. bags), allow attackers to get set before SH passes so they can take time to manipulate defenders’ alignment and make the desired unders / overs cut.
65-70 mins Break and De-Brief (Touch introduction)
70-90 mins Touch

  • Hands at the ready
  • Quality passing
  • On toes, ready to change direction
  • Sudden movements
  • Two-handed touch; attacker places ball between legs, defender can ‘mark’ but rest must retreat 5m
  • Ball must be rolled back where touch was made
  • 5th touch = turnover
  • Balls dropped backwards = play on
  • Offloads made within 1 sec. of touch do not count against limited touches; offloads thrown away aimlessly = automatic turnover
  • Restarts and Penalties = 10m retreat and tap kick


Way more people than expected showed up – which was great! – but I felt there was too much standing around at the start.  The agility circuit should have instead been stations so that people were constantly moving instead of waiting in line.  I adjusted this for the next two drills so that there was an advanced group and two novice groups working at their own pace.  I had three team leaders graciously offer to monitor each drill while I floated around and dropped ‘teachable moment’ lessons, and offered quite a lot of feedback to units after they completed.  I don’t think I talked to the group as much as I used to, which is a goal of mine, preferring to allow them greater time participating and opting instead to continually yell the ‘key elements’ as described in the outline above.  With the greater numbers, and wanting to ensure everyone had a solid run-through for each skill component, we didn’t have time for touch … though I doubt it’d work with 40 people in a b-ball gym, even if teams rotated off.  Faced with that again, I think I’ll try and just keep the final skill scenario as dynamic and game-like as possible.

Unders and Overs Lines in a Game

Luke McAllister (NZ 12) runs an unders line off Dan Carter (NZ 10), and Jerry Collins runs an overs line off Luke McAllister.

Beating a Man 1 on 1 with Jeff Wilson, legendary All Black

Deadly Sidesteps of Danie Gerber

John Bentley’s Triple Swerve (first is text-book)

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Here are five more things I learned over the course of my coaching career that just sort of occurred from trial and observation:

1. Ball in two hands.  The first sport I played seriously, and it’s commonplace in that game for ball carriers to ‘tuck it away’ and just run.  In rugby, there are people beside / behind you to pass to in order to keep the play flowing.  Keeping the ball in two hands not only allows you to get the ball away quicker (rather than, first, having to grab it with the second hand – even fractions of a second count!), but it also keeps the defence second guessing.  After watching a lot more rugby, I realised that defenders would hesitate in front of the ball-in-two-hands attacking player, not being absolutely sure of what he was going to do.  Conversely, a player who ‘tucks it away’ isn’t near as likely to get a pass off – unless his name is Sonny Bill Williams! – so defenders are more confident rushing to complete the tackle.

2. Preservation of space.  In football, the ball carrier’s only job was to gain as much territory as possible – essentially by himself, with the help of some planned / spontaneous blocking.  In rugby, it’s not an individual effort and the game is best played if contact can be avoided.  Creation of space through deception, like a switch run, came quickly to me as it reminded me of the running / blocking lines of football, but preservation of space is, I think, unique to the continuity of rugby.  If I can’t immediately get through right here, but there’s lots of space to my left – along with a team mate – I’m better off holding a straight line to keep (or preserve) the defender here and make a timely pass to put into space my team mate over there.  In football, a running back would probably try and turn that corner himself.  A couple of years ago, I was delighted to see footage from an old football game from the leather helmet days in which three passes were made from the line of scrimmage to the wide receiver.  The quarter back passed to running back, who broke the line and passed to a slot back; he drew attention from the defenders and passed to the wide receiver who scored in the corner.  I’d have LOVED to play football in the 1920s or 1930s, especially when the forward pass was relatively new and not widely used.  The opportunities for a tactically minded coach / player must have been limitless!

3. Predictable defending.  This one came quite early.  If I stand in a certain spot, or make a run at a certain angle a good defender is going to mirror that.  If he doesn’t, well then great, I’m gone.  But even if he does, my alignment can provide opportunities for others.  For example, if a player closer to the ball than you has incredible quickness, standing a little wider in alignment will draw the defender wider (a good defender, that is) giving your quick-stepping team mate more room to beat his opponent to the outside.  If the defender doesn’t slide, you have that advantage.  It also doesn’t stop there.  If your team mate makes a ‘half break’ into the space, but draws the attention of your defender, then call for the pass as your man has just created an opportunity for you.  Defenders act and react to attacking players, providing opportunities.  If they don’t, your job is even easier.

4. Diamond support.  Support is one of the principles of the game.  It’s essential for continuity, another principle.  One person in support is good, two great, but three is wonderful.  Instead of shuffling the ball in a draw-and-pass motion, which allowed the defence to close down space, I favour a quick pass to not only get the ball to someone with plenty of space in front of them, but also with plenty of support around them.  From a scrum, one of my most favoured attacks is a strike run via the outside centre – who I like to be not only fast and quick, but also with a keen eye for space and tactical sense to set up his/her team mates if the situation warrants.  Not only does the outside centre channel have lots of space available on the left and right, but there’s also another centre, a winger, and a full back in support – at least!

5. Space behind committed defender.  I’m surprised it took me so long to figure this one out, given the predictable defending and preservation of space aspects came so quickly.  Essentially, the defender committed to either a ball carrier or a support option should be an easy target to attack – not the player him/herself, but the space behind.  Example 1:  Fly half makes a straight run at his opposite number, fixing him in place.  Inside centre makes a sudden angular run at the space behind the defending fly half and calls for a short pass, slipping in behind him.  This is called an Unders Line, I suppose running ‘under’ the defensive coverage.  The opposite, an Overs Line, involves a sudden angular run by the ball carrier, not the support runner.  This is made easier, as mentioned above, when the supporting player has provided enough width for the ball carrier to make such a move.  A good defender should probably stick with his man in this situation and rely upon his inside man to cross cover the sudden line break, allowing the ball carrier a better chance of getting away.  If not, and the outside defender has to step in and help, the ball carrier needs to be wary of his support and get the ball away as he’s just created a two on one.


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Photo courtesy of Craig White

Despite our team running in five tries yesterday, I didn’t think our backline clicked as well or as often as I hoped it would.  I put this down to first game after a long break, though I think it’s time I had them take another step in becoming better ‘thinking’ rugby players.  Their alignment wasn’t bad, their determination and ability with ball in hand quite good, but what was off was their timing.  In some cases the outside centre was too deep to be of use and in others the inside centre was too flat to be a useful passing option, and vice versa.  I forgave them because on defence they were great, but also because the former is still young and learning the game and the latter is very new to our team.  Their challenge this week, and for the coming weeks as this awareness won’t come instantly, will be to learn more about each member of their unit as rugby players.

One of the best backlines I’ve ever seen live was the one I played with (as a front row forward) when I was 18 and playing for a local club.  All but one had been playing school rugby together for four years and they were good mates off the field – the outlier being from another school, but who was on the left wing.  They knew each other’s abilities and tendencies to the point that they played off each other intuitively, and rarely needed a planned move to break the gain line or score a try.  So what sort of things did they know about each other that made them so effective?

  1. Quality of each player’s personal skills... meaning how long each player could pass, and the level of accuracy they possessed.  As I say to my players prior to working on spin passing, if you know the player beside you can make a long pass, then you can align yourselves much wider, opening larger gaps between defenders (because most good defenders will line up with you – if not, then you could beat them around the outside!)
  2. Average speed and quickness. Note that speed = straight line sprinting, while quickness = is, generally speaking, agility, lateral movement, and acceleration off the mark.  You might have to lie a little flatter OR start your run earlier to be able to keep up with someone who’s faster than you, or the opposite if you’re faster than the ball carrier.
  3. Preferred means of receiving a pass. This primarily refers to the way fly halves take the ball, but fly halves aren’t always on their feet, ready in the first receiver position.  Who often steps in for them?  How do they like to take a pass – standing flat, big run from deep, little run flat and out, etc?  This knowledge helps the support runners time their run.  Maybe the receiver has a certain physical trigger that will help you start your run, or maybe you have to consider how her tendencies in this area affect timing, so you might have to consider what the previous passer does.  The big one here is running vs standing and flat vs deep.  Each has it’s advantages, and I think the disadvantages of each are accentuated by support players not knowing how to time their runs accordingly.
  4. Tendencies with ball in hand. This is related to the last point, but deals more with what the ball carrier tends to do when they have the ball and are going to keep it for a certain length of time.  For example, when I play touch I often end up as first receiver and I prefer to stand flat and make a sudden move at the inside shoulder of the player outside of me.  I’m deceptively quick so am going for the line break, but if it’s not on I’m hoping (key word!) my support runner realises that I’ve just made him a hole and I’ll look to give him a flat pass into space.  If he’s too deep, then no worries I’ll still give a leading pass and we’ll try an attack somewhere else.  This is why I like having a 12 who can also scan, think and pass in contact rugby as this often happens against congested defences.  If he’s too early then I’ll use him as a decoy and fire a longer, slightly deeper – but still leading pass – to the next person.  As another example, we have a wonderful outside centre who’s both quick and fast and can beat most defenders on her first move.  I’ve been using this an example to get the other backs thinking about how they can run off her.  The winger needs to realise that her defender will often get drawn into this break and needs to be ready to call for a pass before the centre is closed down.  Alternatively, our full back could find an excellent hole in the defending 13’s channel and call for an inside ball as she turns to chase our centre.  It’s these sort of tendencies players need to be aware of so they don’t have to react as much to things as they develop, but can predict what is going to happen based upon prior knowledge.
  5. Agreed-upon method of communication. This goes without saying, and I’ve talked about it a lot in this blog already, but I can’t stress enough that communication not only needs to be present but also must be short (no sentences, just monosyllabic words and small phrases), relevant (not: “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” but “On your left.  Pop… NOW!”) and even to provide advice (“Hold it! GO!” … when someone’s about to pass, but has a huge hole in front of them, or “See [name of someone out wide]” when there’s a clear and imminent opportunity elsewhere.)

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